Dental hygienist law helps address health access

The dentist shortage in New Hampshire is even worse than the numbers suggest

New Hampshire has a new law that establishes a certified public health dental hygienist to improve access to oral health care. This is another important step toward providing dental care to more New Hampshire residents with unmet needs. Substantial research supports this new law.

New Hampshire’s beautiful rivers, lakes and mountains make our state special, but they can also create barriers for those trying to find a dentist who lives within 20 or 30 miles of their home, school or work. More than 26,000 people in the Granite State live in an area that is confirmed to have a shortage of dentists.

The new law allows specially trained dental hygienists to place temporary fillings in decayed teeth. Temporary fillings curtail the spread of decay until these patients are able to find a dentist to see them. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recognizes temporary fillings as a beneficial, short-term technique in dental care. These fillings can enable children to avoid missing school and help adults avoid missing work because of unnecessary pain. They may reduce an unnecessary, expensive visit to the emergency room where a patient can only receive treatment for pain and infection.

That is part of why insurance premiums continue to rise in New Hampshire. In the Granite State, the rate of hospital ER visits for dental ailments rose by 45 percent between 2001 and 2005. Through Medicaid, many of these costs are picked up by taxpayers.

To address oral health barriers, the Endowment for Health convened a group of stakeholders that became the New Hampshire Oral Health Access Strategy Work Group. Their charge was to figure out solutions to this continuing problem in our state. This diverse group includes hygienists, dentists, professional associations, foundations, pediatricians, businesses, and children’s organizations. The task force created a set of guiding principles and remains committed to expanding the dental workforce so that all of New Hampshire’s people have access to quality, routine care. The Pew Center on the States has provided expert and independent research and other support for these efforts.

The dentist shortage in New Hampshire is even worse than the numbers suggest, because nearly one in five private-practice dentists (19 percent) works only part-time. In a survey of New Hampshire dentists conducted in February 2010, 60 percent indicated they expected to leave practice within the next 15 years.

The Endowment for Health has invested nearly $6 million over the past 10 years in grants to organizations working to address these challenges. We must approach the issue of geographic barriers by focusing on both ends of the problem – seeking better ways of moving the people to services and seeking better ways of getting the services to where people can access them.

Mary Vallier-Kaplan is vice president of the Concord-based Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation.

Categories: Opinion